Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun wrote the story of her extraordinary life in the 1830s, when she was more than eighty years old, in part to shake off calumnies which had clung to her name since the days of her opposition to the French Revolution, and in part for the pleasure of looking back. In her youth and long working life, she knew and painted some of the most interesting men and women of her time. The old lady set out to describe a past that was to her as clear in focus and as bright in color as one of her own paintings.
Our late-twentieth-century perspective on the Revolution allows us to sympathize with an artist whose singular loyalty to the old Bourbons once led many critics to dismiss her as a moral and artistic featherweight. Mesmerized as we all are by the passionate revolutionary imagery of Jacques-Louis David, who was her almost exact contemporary, we find the nuances and gentilities of her portraits closer in spirit to those of the court painters of Louis XV. Though her style is essentially neoclassical, not unlike that of David himself, in her paintings we hear the authentic voice of the best of the ancien régime—modulated, amused, and thoroughly civilized. To discover again this aspect of her portraiture we have to approach the people she depicts in peplums and fillets through a scale of values we usually associate with the paintings of Fragonard. There is no better way to begin than by reading her memoirs.
Born in 1755, the daughter of a minor portrait painter who died when she was thirteen, Elisabeth Vigée was more or less self-taught. In 1776 she married the art dealer Jean-Baptiste-Pierre Lebrun who then proceeded to gamble away every franc she earned. They divorced in 1794 and the memoirs have a great deal to say about her former husband, none of it complimentary.
As a young woman, Vigée was taken up by the Duchesse de Chartres, the first member of the highest nobility to commission a portrait from her. In 1778, at the age of twenty-three, she was summoned to Versailles to paint her first portrait of Queen Marie Antoinette. As with Cecil Beaton or Andy Warhol, intimacy with the great swiftly turned an outsider into a creature who was seen to be as glamorous as the subjects she painted. As beautiful as she was talented (and soon, as rich), she conducted a brilliant musical and literary salon in prerevolutionary Paris. At a meeting of the Académie Française all present rose to their feet, turned to Mme. Vigée-Lebrun, and applauded.
In 1783 the Queen saw to it that she was admitted to the Académie Royale de Peinture et de Sculpteur. A working girl of quite phenomenal professionalism, between 1783 and 1789 Vigée-Lebrun exhibited more than forty portraits at the Academy’s biennial salon. Her only miscalculation, had she cared for her posthumous reputation, was her own consistency: she continued to paint beautifully wrought portraits of all the most prominent people with flair and conviction long after the Revolution and its aftermath had rendered such confidence obsolete. Her paintings suggest a robust optimism when it was the doubt and self-questioning of romantic portraiture that would appeal to the twentieth-century imagination. Franz Xavier Winterhalter is the artist who faithfully carried on where she left off, and he too worked almost exclusively for the nobility and royal houses of Europe, the last to mine what I suppose could be called a dry shaft.
One would like to see what Vigée-Lebrun made of a sitter whose politics she actually disliked, and since she died at the age of eighty-seven, she certainly lived through enough regimes to take her pick. But with the exception of one unhappy commission from Napoleon’s sister Mme. Murat, she stuck to her monarchist convictions, expressing nothing but undiluted scorn for—successively—the Revolution, the Directory, the Empire, and the July Monarchy. There was no conflict between her art and her political beliefs, and in her portraits she limited herself to the privileged social class whose values she shared.
Those values embraced the cult of good manners. It is precisely this polished veneer that Vigée-Lebrun expresses so much admiration for in her memoirs, and records so faithfully in her paintings. When she describes the death of her former patron Mme. Du Barry, the artist notes that Louis XV’s mistress was
the only woman among so many who perished in those days of terror who could not contain her fear when she saw the guillotine; she screamed, she begged mercy from the barbaric mob surrounding her; indeed the crowd was so moved that the executioner thought it prudent to finish his grim task as quickly as possible.
Not that Vigée-Lebrun entirely disapproved of Mme Du Barry’s temporary lapse into bad form:
This incident has persuaded me that if the victims of this dark time had not been possessed of that noble pride which made them die courageously, then the terror might have ended a lot sooner. Men whose intelligence is underdeveloped have too little imagination to be touched by interior suffering, and it is far easier to excite the pity of the people than their admiration.
If her patrons considered it ill-bred to register emotion even in the face of death, this hardly means they did not feel and suffer deeply. Another sitter, the Duchesse de Polignac, may have been a goose and clearly profited from her position as the Queen’s favorite, but there is no reason to doubt Vigée-Lebrun when she tells us that when this woman heard of Marie Antoinette’s execution she literally died from grief. These memoirs constantly remind us that those who perished, or who lost their families, or who were exiled by the Revolution were often simple people whose tragic destinies deserve our pity.
Accused by the revolutionaries of being the lover of, among others, the finance minister Charles-Alexandre de Calonne, Vigée-Lebrun realized that if she stayed in Paris her days were numbered. She fled with her small daughter in a public stagecoach on the night of October 5, 1789, owing her escape to the torpor of the working-class district near the Bastille, whose exhausted inhabitants had that day escorted the royal family from Versailles to Paris. She would not see France again for twelve years.
She tells the story of her flight with the skill of a novelist, building up detail upon detail to make us feel the constant danger she was in, then holding back the climax so that we experience with her the overwhelming relief of crossing the frontier into Italy. Once safe, she conveys a sense of what it meant to be an emigrée. Anxious and bewildered by the collapse of her world, she strains to catch news from France as wave after wave of the dispossessed crosses the border. Soon, however, she stops reading French newspapers because they carry weekly lists of friends and clients who have been guillotined.
From now on she was on her own. Unlike others in her predicament Vigée-Lebrun had her work by which to earn her living. She put the past behind her. Moving exclusively in antirevolutionary circles and patronized by the highest nobility in Rome, Naples, Venice, and Milan, she began to rebuild her fortune. In 1792 she set off to work the court at Vienna, and from 1795 to 1801 she lived in St. Petersburg under the protection of Catherine the Great.
After brief visits to Berlin and Dresden she returned to Napoleon’s France, but found the regime so tawdry that she was off again to London as soon as the Peace of Amiens permitted her to travel. Just when British artists were flooding into Paris, she was stuffing her diamonds down her stockings again, embarking on a three-year stint as a portrait painter in London, where she would number the Prince of Wales and Byron as her clients.
Along the way she met hundreds of men and women whose tragic or comic or fabulous lives she records in these memoirs. Early on, she describes how the Queen’s kind-hearted lady-in-waiting, Mme. Auguier, throws herself from a castle window when she sees the revolutionaries coming to arrest her. In Rome, Vigée-Lebrun fails to paint Pius VI because she could not see through the veil that she was required to wear in his presence. In St. Petersburg Catherine the Great tucks a great bib into her dress before eating, like a fat baby. When told that the great monarch is “a good woman,” Vigée-Lebrun gives a little wink—“ ‘A good woman,’ you will agree, was perhaps not quite the right expression.”
She is at her best describing the carryings-on among the Russian nobility under Catherine and her successor, Paul I. Vigée-Lebrun’s friend the Princess Dolgorouky tells her of a dinner party given by Prince Potemkin at which the table was set with “crystal goblets full of diamonds, which were served by the spoonful.” And here (in a somewhat compressed version of the translation) is how Vigée-Lebrun portrays the Countess Scavronsky, wife of the Russian ambassador to the court of Naples, niece of Potemkin (and though she doesn’t say so, his former mistress), whom she meets in her palace in Naples:
Her uncle…had showered her with riches, but she made no use of them at all. Her jewel case [was] one of the most splendid imaginable: it contained some enormous diamonds given to her by Potemkin, but I never saw her wear them. As sweet and pretty as an angel, she was happiest lying stretched out on a sofa without her corset and wrapped about with a huge black pelisse. I remember her telling me that in order to sleep, a slave had to lie under the bed and recite the same story to her every night. During the day she was always idle; she had no education, and her conversation was as empty as could be.
On the island of Ischia, Mme. Vigée-Lebrun eats ice cream with Emma Hart and Sir William Hamilton on the summit of Monte San Nicola, then leaves the leftovers of the picnic for the “grateful hermits.” The future Lady Hamilton she thought common, deficient in grace, and with “very poor taste in matters of dress.” And when she paints Emma reclining full-length by the seashore wearing a get-up vaguely suggestive of a bacchante, the absurd result confirms what has long been obvious to me: that the creator of the Attitudes—the tableaux vivants in which Emma appeared in the guise of various classical heroines—was a frightful bore.
That is the one thing Elisabeth Vigée-Lebrun never was. Everything she did she did with her own original style. Her influence on the taste and fashion of the period was as far-reaching as any other woman’s, apart from Queen Marie Antoinette herself. At her famous Souper Grec, an impromptu dinner party held in Paris in 1788, leaders of society and the arts put on togas and wore laurel wreaths to drink from Etruscan bowls and fragile Greek vases. This innocuous entertainment enjoyed such notoriety (it was said to have cost 80,000 francs, when in fact the true cost was nearer 15 francs) that it was talked about in Rome, Venice, Vienna, and St. Petersburg long before Mme. Vigée-Lebrun herself arrived in those cities. Although only a footnote in the history of style, its importance for the dissemination of neoclassicism was surely incalculable.
Vigée-Lebrun insisted that her clients not wear powder when sitting for their portraits, and what began in her atelier spread through society. Inspired by her love for the madonnas of Raphael and sibyls of Domenichino, she draped her female sitters in brightly colored shawls, thereby introducing a new article of high fashion into European dress. As an intimate of the royal household in St. Petersburg Vigée-Lebrun helped to dress the four imperial princesses for a great ball, and saw to it that they all appeared “in Greek costume, their tunics attached at the shoulder by huge diamond studded fasteners.”
In her painting, what Vigée-Lebrun lacked in insight into character she makes up for in virtuoso technique, vibrant color, and an eye for the charming accessory (she loved accessories) or for the graceful gesture. Many of these qualities she brought to her descriptive writing. Remembering a blazing hot Sunday in June near Naples forty years previously, the old woman could still recall
a young man, his hair curled and so powdered that the enormous ribbon at his neck had made a white patch on the sky blue taffeta of his coat; his jacket was the colour of a faded rose and he wore a nosegay in his button hole….
In 1903 Lionel Strachey published a heavily abridged and expurgated translation of the memoirs. Although his translation is excellent and will serve to give the general reader a sense of Mme. Vigée-Lebrun’s story, what he left out renders his edition useless for art historians and will enrage feminists. Strachey lingers on passages describing the diamond snuff boxes presented to the artist by the likes of Queen Caroline of Naples but omits virtually every incident that shows the author to have been a hard-working perfectionist, not a social butterfly who happened to paint. For she insists again and again on her commitment to her painting. It is the key to her character, and the one trait by which she wanted to be remembered:
Having devoted my youth to working consistently, an assiduousness rather rare among women, and loving art as much as life itself. I can scarcely find four examples among my painting (portraits included) of work that really pleases me.
I discovered I was carrying a child. Now you will see how my devotion to art made me careless in the day to day details of life; for happy as I was at the idea of becoming a mother, after nine months of pregnancy, I was not in the least prepared for the birth of my baby. The day my daughter was born, I was still in the studio, trying to work…in the intervals between labor pains.
When a friend tells her the baby will be born that night she replies, “Oh, no, I have a sitting tomorrow, it can’t be born today.”
Siân Evans’s translation of the 1869 Charpentier edition is the first to appear unabridged in English. What would otherwise be a wholly welcome publication is spoiled by a translation so slovenly that it forces the reader to pause every few pages to wonder whether the words we are reading can possibly be what Mme. Vigée-Lebrun really wrote. Checked against the printed text, they usually aren’t. In the first two chapters alone. Evans has Vigée-Lebrun in the Sistine Chapel admiring Michelangelo’s “Last Supper” when of course she wrote “Le jugement dernier“; or, in Paris in 1768 Evans has her visit “The art galleries” instead of the galerie of the Palais de Luxembourg.
Evans, moreover, has not made the slightest attempt to edit or annotate a text in which the nonspecialist needs all the help he or she can get. Particularly irritating is her failure to identify characters introduced only by initials, even when it greatly increases the interest of an anecdote to know who did what, and to whom. Thus the jealous English painter responsible for writing a vicious attack on Mme. Vigée-Lebrun (and to which the French artist replied with such commendable spirit) was not Thomas Lawrence, as one might have guessed, but the awful John Hoppner.
The ideal way to used this work is in tandem with Joseph Baillio’s fine catalog for the exhibition of Vigée-Lebrun’s work held at the Kimbell Art Museum at Fort Worth in 1982. In it, Baillio has written the introduction and has provided many of the identifying biographies that the lazy and amateurish translator has failed to provide.
February 15, 1990